Nearly 60 years later I remember the crew-cut Jimmy standing in the dim light of a rustic cabin before a gaggle of preadolescent boys wearing Camp Arrowhead T-shirts, blue jeans and high-top Keds.
As I sat on a roughhewn bench, my misery drifted away with the thrill that I was in the presence of someone big and famous.
I can't recall what the square-jawed and muscular Green Bay Packers fullback said, probably something about the importance of hard work, perseverance and teamwork. Nor did I have the foresight to get his autograph. His talk must have given me some of the grit to overcome my acute homesickness and stay until the blessed last day of camp. Throughout my life, I have kept the memory of Taylor that night as a model of grace.
Taylor, like me a Baton Rouge native, died Saturday morning at age 83 after a long and successful NFL afterlife. An All-American two-way player at LSU before the Tigers' football glory days, Taylor was a stalwart of Vince Lombardi's rugged Green Bay Packers championship teams of the 1960s. He won the NFL Most Valuable Player award in 1963, and scored the first Super Bowl touchdown.
His summertime appearance at my camp fuses with indelible television memories of watching him take the ball from Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr and "run for daylight" behind the Packers' indomitable pulling guards in Lombardi's famous sweep. After partnering with Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon for one year at LSU, Taylor played with Notre Dame Heisman recipient Paul Hornung at Green Bay. Taylor gave the muscle and Hornung the glamour of the first NFL team to receive a national following.
While I was an immediate fan of the upstart AFL, shown in living color on NBC, the Packers were my favorite old-time NFL powerhouse. As late Sunday afternoon shadows rolled across our backyard, we watched the Packers crush another opponent on Green Bay's "frozen tundra," narrated by Ray Scott's thrilling voice. The Packers on TV were one of the few CBS shows my father, an NBC television station executive, allowed us to watch.
Taylor finished his LSU career in 1957, the year before Coach Paul Dietzel and his Chinese Bandits won the national championship. Cannon joined him as a sophomore, also playing on offense and defense. Before Cannon and his teammates secured permanent LSU fan loyalty with the national championship and his 1959 Heisman Trophy punt return against Ole Miss, a follower could go to a ticket window just before kickoff and buy a ticket to the game.
Like Cannon, the less athletic Taylor was a follower of Baton Rouge weightlifting guru Alvin Roy, whose strength program carried Hank Stram's Kansas City Chiefs to the 1970 Super Bowl championship. Former Packers center and Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky coach Bill Curry remembered after Taylor's death how Taylor insisted on the rookie Curry joining him for bench pressing sessions during Lombardi's grueling two-a-day preseason practices.
Still active two years ago, Taylor joined LSU fans in Green Bay for the Tigers' ill-fated game against Wisconsin at legendary Lambeau Field. The Green Bay Packers museum at Lambeau honored Taylor with his own exhibit, fitting for the first Lombardi Packer inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.
The Taylor exhibit included an amusing evaluation in which Lombardi lauds Taylor for not thinking too much. Lombardi prized those who would follow orders without question, although he had a fondness for the rebellious Hornung and Max McGee.
A typed letter from Taylor soliciting a place on the Packers belies Lombardi's comment. Taylor's letter had no typos or grammatical errors, and displays an admirable ability to express his thoughts. I was excited to see Taylor's return address from a street in Baton Rouge's Southdowns neighborhood a block or two away from where I spent my early childhood.
Taylor was overshadowed by the Cleveland Browns' more athletically gifted Jim Brown, who unlike Taylor probably never touched a weight. In contrast to Brown's breathtaking breakaway runs, Taylor chewed up yards, crushing into linebackers and defensive backs like Sam Huff, Chuck Bendarik and Dick "Night Train" Lane.
While I admire Taylor's gridiron glory, I cherish more my warm memories of the modest man who made a long drive at night through the rural Louisiana darkness to inspire young boys at camp.